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Shortness of breath: what can it be and what to do

Shortness of breath is characterized by the difficulty of air reaching the lungs, which can happen due to excessive physical activity, anxiety, nervousness, bronchitis or asthma, in addition to other more serious situations that should be investigated by the physician. 

When shortness of breath arises, sitting down and trying to calm down are the first steps to be taken, but if the feeling of shortness of breath does not improve within half an hour, or if it gets worse, you should go to the emergency room. 

Shortness of breath: what can it be and what to do

Some of the main causes or illnesses that can cause shortness of breath include: 

1. Stress and anxiety

Emotional causes are the most frequent causes of shortness of breath in healthy people, especially adolescents and young adults. Thus, in case of anxiety, excessive stress or even a panic disorder, the individual may have difficulty breathing.

What to do: It is important to seek psychological help to be able to deal with the problems without harming your health. In addition to practicing physical activities and having a healthy diet, as well as drinking a calming tea such as chamomile, or valerian capsules are good options. 

2. Excessive physical activity

People who are not used to physical activity may feel short of breath when starting any type of activity, but especially when walking or running, due to lack of physical conditioning. Overweight people are the most affected, but shortness of breath can also occur in people of ideal weight.

What to do: In this case, it is enough to continue exercising regularly for the heart, other muscles of the body and breathing to get used to the physical effort. 

3. Pregnancy

Shortness of breath is common after 26 weeks of gestation due to the bulging belly, which compresses the diaphragm, leaving less room for the lungs.

What to do: Sit back, comfortably in a chair, closing your eyes and concentrating on your own breathing, trying to inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. Using pillows and pillows can be a good strategy to sleep better. 

4. Heart problems

Heart disease, such as heart failure, causes shortness of breath on exertion such as getting out of bed or climbing stairs. Usually people with this condition report worsening shortness of breath over time of illness and the individual may also experience chest pain, such as angina. 

What to do: You must follow the treatment indicated by the doctor, which is usually done with the use of medication.

5. COVID-19

COVID-19 is an infection caused by a type of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which can affect people and lead to the development of symptoms that can range from a simple flu to a more serious infection. shortness of breath in some people.

In addition to shortness of breath, people with COVID-19 may also experience headache, high fever, malaise, muscle pain, loss of smell and taste, and a dry cough. 

The most severe symptoms of COVID-19 are more frequent in people who have chronic diseases or who have nervous system disorders due to disease or age, however healthy people can also be infected by the virus and develop severe symptoms and, therefore, It is important to take steps to help prevent infection.

What to do: In case of suspected COVID-19, that is, when the person presents symptoms suggestive of coronavirus infection, it is important to inform the health service so that the test can be done and the diagnosis can be confirmed.

In the case of a positive result, it is recommended that the person remain in isolation and communicate to the people with whom he/she was in contact so that they can also take the test. 

6. Respiratory diseases

The flu and the cold, especially when a person has a lot of phlegm, can cause shortness of breath and coughing. But certain diseases like asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, pneumothorax can also cause a feeling of shortness of breath. We indicate below the characteristics of the main respiratory diseases that cause this symptom:

  • Asthma: shortness of breath starts suddenly, you may feel suffocated or tight in the chest, and signs such as coughing and prolonged exhalation may be present;
  • Bronchitis: shortness of breath is directly related to phlegm in the airways or lungs; 
  • COPD: Shortness of breath starts very slowly and gets worse over the days, usually affecting people with bronchitis or emphysema. There is a strong cough with phlegm and prolonged expiration;
  • Pneumonia: shortness of breath starts gradually and gets worse, there is also back or lung pain when breathing, fever and cough;
  • Pneumothorax: shortness of breath starts suddenly and there is also back or lung pain when breathing;
  • Embolism: Shortness of breath starts suddenly, especially affecting people who have had recent surgery, who have been resting, or women who take the pill. Cough, chest pain and fainting may also appear.

What to do: In case of flu or cold, you can take syrups to improve the cough and nasal washes with serum and thus be able to breathe better, in the case of more serious illnesses, you must follow the treatment indicated by the doctor, which can be done using medications and respiratory physiotherapy.

7. Small object in the airway

Shortness of breath starts suddenly, with eating or with a feeling of something in your nose or throat. There is usually some sound when breathing or it may be impossible to speak or cough. Babies and children are the most affected, although it can also happen in bedridden people.

What to do: When the object is in the nose or can be easily removed from the mouth, you can try to remove it, very carefully, using tweezers. However, it is safer to lay the person on their side to clear their airway and when it is not possible to identify what is making breathing difficult, they should go to the emergency room.

8. Allergic reaction

In this case, shortness of breath starts suddenly after taking some medicine, eating something you have an allergy or being bitten by an insect. 

What to do: Many people with severe allergies have an injection of adrenaline to be used in an emergency. If so, it should be applied immediately, and the doctor should be notified. When the person does not have this injection or does not know they have an allergy or has used something that causes an allergy without knowing it, an ambulance should be called or taken to the emergency room immediately.

9. Obesity 

Overweight and obesity can also cause shortness of breath when lying down or sleeping because weight decreases the lungs' ability to expand during air intake. 

What to do: To be able to breathe better, with less effort, you can use pillows or pillows to sleep, trying to be in a more inclined position, but it is very important to lose weight, being accompanied by a nutritionist. 

10. Neuromuscular diseases

Myasthenia gravis and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis can also cause a feeling of shortness of breath due to weakness of the breathing muscles. 

What to do: Follow the treatment indicated by the doctor, which is done with the use of medication and always keep him informed about the frequency with which the shortness of breath appears, because it may be necessary to change the medication, or adjust its dose.

11. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea

This is one of the common causes of feeling short of breath at night, during sleep, with difficulty sleeping, which is usually caused by heart problems or respiratory illnesses such as chronic bronchitis or asthma. 

What to do:  In these cases, a medical consultation is recommended, as it may be necessary to perform some tests to identify the disease and thus start the appropriate treatment.

What to do immediately in case of shortness of breath

In case of shortness of breath, the first step is to remain calm and sit comfortably, closing your eyes so that you can concentrate on your own breathing. After that, you should focus your attention on the entry and exit of air from your lungs, in order to regulate your breathing.

If the shortness of breath is being caused by a temporary illness such as the flu or a cold, nebulizations made with eucalyptus tea steam can help to unclog the airways, facilitating the passage of air and reducing discomfort.

However, if the shortness of breath is being caused by diseases such as asthma or bronchitis, for example, in these cases it may be necessary to use specific remedies to unblock the airways, such as Aerolin or Salbutamol, for example, indicated by the doctor. 

Required exams 

Tests are not always necessary to identify the cause of shortness of breath, because some cases are obvious, such as tiredness, obesity, stress, pregnancy or when the person already has asthma, bronchitis or another heart or respiratory disease that has been previously discovered.

But sometimes tests are necessary, and that is why it may be necessary to perform a chest x-ray, electrocardiogram, spirometry, blood count, blood glucose, TSH, urea and electrolytes. 

what to tell the doctor

Some information that may be useful for the physician to discover the cause and indicate the necessary treatment are:

  • When the shortness of breath came, whether it was sudden or slowly getting worse;
  • What time of year, and whether the person was out of the country or not;
  • If you had physical activity or any effort before starting this symptom;
  • How often does it appear and the most difficult times;
  • If there are other symptoms at the same time, such as cough, phlegm, use of medication.

It is also very helpful for a doctor to know if the feeling of shortness of breath you have resembles the feeling of straining to breathe, of feeling suffocated, or tightness in your chest. 

(Reference - https://www.healthline.com/health/what-does-shortness-of-breath-feel-like,

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